Harold Pinter 10

It was over two years ago that I came home from Morrisons in Shepherds Bush, carrier bags dangling from both hands, their handles cutting into my palms and fingers. Emily, then twelve years old, opened the door for me as I rang the bell with my chin, and quickly taking the bags from one hand, she replaced them with the telephone.

“Dad, there’s some bloke on the line”, she said, “I think his name’s Harold Pinter.”

I did a quadruple take, paused to control myself, and spoke into the phone dubiously.

“Hello? Craig Murray here”.

The reply came in that stage whisper voice and laboured breathing that characterised the great man’s tortured years.

“Hello. This is Harold Pinter. I have just read your book. Bloody marvellous effort. Might I invite you to lunch?”

I accepted with great alacrity, and a few days later walked along to Holland Park, to his favourite Italian restaurant. He was chauffeured to the door and helped out of the vehicle, but insisted on walking to the table himself, doing so with enormous difficulty and in some obvious pain. He ordered a bottle of white wine and poured it himself, the extreme shake of his hand spilling a good deal of the contents of the bottle over his trousers, the table and me. He actually got quite sharp with me when I offered to take the bottle. He positively snapped:

“No, I can do it.”

When Harold Pinter snapped at you, it left you in no doubt what had just happened. I wasn’t sure how to recover and, with instantaneous but very conscious calculation, decided to risk a joke about his condition. I launched in:

“Hmmm, reminds me of the old joke:

‘Doctor, doctor, my hand keeps shaking’

‘Do you drink much?’

‘No, I spill most of it.’ ”

He laughed genuinely at this old chestnut, and handed me the bottle. We drank a good deal over lunch; I believe three more bottles followed.

He told me that he found his plays funnier than audiences did. He did not miss writing plays because he had become “sanctified”, and people felt they were not allowed to laugh at the absurd. On the other hand he felt his poetry was better crafted than his plays, yet did not get the same degree of analysis.

He spoke at great length about Murder in Samarkand, which he was kind enough to call one of the most important books written in his lifetime. He was full of absolute fury for Bush and Blair. He called them “Liars and thieves”, and he was rather despairing about the lack of really serious challenge to the attack on civil liberties in the UK and US. He said his great desire was to live to see Bush and Blair on trial in the Hague as war criminals. He realised he might not make it, and urged me to make sure I stayed alive long enough to do it.

He drew great heart from the young people in the anti-war movement, and suggested that, terrible though the government was, we should not fall prey to hopelessness.

I remember two things he said especially: “Hopelessness is the disease of old men”, and : “Bush and Blair are fucking cunts. You know, the English language has fantastic resource. Fucking cunts. Bush and Blair, fucking cunts. It is absolutely right for them.”

He said this quite deliberately in a voice the whole restaurant would hear.

All the other lunchers had long gone by the time we left the restaurant. At the end, he wrote on a menu for me the quote that appears on the cover of Murder in Samarkand. He insisted I did not wait around while they “load me in like a sack of coal”.

A couple of days later a signed original from the ceremony of his Nobel acceptance speech arrived, together with some manuscript poems. A few weeks after he emailed me to offer me financial assistance as he had heard (correctly though I do not know how) that I couldn’t pay the rent – I declined but was most touched. He took an interest by email in Nadira’s progress through drama school and with her one woman show. I only ever saw him once again, and that in a large company.

Obviously of those who could really say they knew him, I knew him very little.

But I am deeply saddened by this passing, and I offer these recollections to add to the picture of a wonderful man, great writer, and true friend of liberty and peace.

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